By Dr. Sean Adams
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, few Americans knew what military service really meant. In both the North and the South, idealized visions of martial glory held sway over much of the public. After all, secessionists argued, the average northerner was an emaciated, sun-deprived factory worker or a weak-willed shopkeeper. Henry Wise, the ex-governor of Virginia, envisioned brave men advancing with rifles toward what he called the “popinjays of Northern cities.” The northern press held equal disdain for the newly formed Confederacy’s ability or willingness to fight. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune had headlines screaming “On to Richmond,” and editorialists across the North assumed that the false bravado of Confederate soldiers whipped into a frenzy by fire-eating slave-owners would subside once the bullets flew and the cannons roared. Armed with this false confidence, thousands of white American men flocked to the recruitment agents of the Union and Confederate armies, ready to fight.
If we were to characterize the experience of most Civil War soldiers, we might say that they experienced brief moments of sheer terror. Dr. Sean Adams, Department of History, University of Florida.
But, what did soldiers actually do during the Civil War? Many of them fought and died in this epic struggle, of course, but if we look at the average experience of the more than three million Americans who served in either the Union or Confederate army, there was far less fighting than most of them ever imagined. In fact, most of their time was spent in camp, either preparing for battle, recovering from it, or training for action that might never arrive. If we were to characterize the experience of most Civil War soldiers, we might say that they experienced brief moments of sheer terror, but that the short-lived battle experience—or “seeing the elephant” in the slang of the day—was punctuated by long periods of time in camp. The grinding experience of war diminished excitement on both sides. In its place, asense of professional soldiery emerged in Union and Confederate armies. Newspaper headlines and political rallies might have made patriots; military camp made soldiers.
Although, many Americans before the war would have been familiar with firearms, both the Union and Confederate armies were drawn overwhelmingly from the civilian ranks. The pre-war U.S. Army was less than 16,000 strong and militia training for most Americans consisted of more politicking or drinking than anything else. So the basics of military training—marching in tandem, lining up for roll call, learning how to execute orders—had to be instilled quickly. Soldiers trained hard to learn how to load and fire their weapons while standing in the tight formations. The process of loading and firing a rifle consisted of twelve steps. Soldiers mastered these steps until it became mechanical. Soldiers needed to be able to fire three aimed shots in a minute; this ability was gained only through constant practice.
Despite training and combat, there were long periods of monotony. Roll call at six, breakfast at seven, two hours of squad or company drill, a noontime meal, then battalion drill for two more hours, dress parade at five, supper at six, roll call at nine p.m., and taps at nine-thirty. When they were not fighting, soldiers chopped wood, washed clothes, and cooked. Soldiers located far from the battlefield engaged in more intellectual pursuits were common such as bible readings, debate clubs, and even company or camp newspapers. Food rations were relatively lean on both side of the conflict. Hardtack, the most well-known food staple, is a simple biscuit made from flour and water. Hardtack is inexpensive, easy to make, and lasts a considerable amount of time, making it a popular combat ration. The bread, however, is extremely dry and tasteless; innovating soldiers combined it with other foods or water to make it palatable. Desiccated vegetables, typically onions and carrots dried into cubes, were another prominent, tasteless Civil War staple that soldiers bitterly complained about. Beans and salt pork were added to a soldier’s diet whenever available. Coffee was a necessity for most soldiers; when Confederates faced shortages, they resorted to brewing chicory, acorns, almonds, and dandelions as substitutes. Confederates suffered more from food shortages than Union troops. Camp life meant scrounging for what you wanted, and often going without what you needed.
Medical facilities were rudimentary—both sides assumed that this would be a short lived war. As late as the Second Bull Run battle, in August 1862, one Union division took the field without a single ambulance. Civil War surgeons practiced medicine using blunt techniques, and instruments; amputation was common and ideas of antiseptics practically nonexistent. If wounded, a Civil War soldier had a poor chance of surviving: 18% of wounded Confederates died of wounds suffered in battle and 14% of Yankee soldiers died of wounds. As a part of camp life, scores of young men were brought into close proximity with one another, in some cases for the first time. Consequently, disease was a constant problem—dysentery, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and others were common when these men were lumped together, made worse with injury and sickness that came with the war. It’s estimated that 225,000 Union and 194,000 Confederates died of disease during the Civil War, comprising two-thirds of all Civil War deaths. Thus, illness killed more soldiers than battles ever did. Even after northern women formed the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which helped rationalize the placement of latrines, as well as conditions in makeshift army hospitals, soldiers still suffered.
By the time of the Olustee campaign began in Florida, the Union had three times as many troops under arms than the Confederacy. Both sides enacted military conscription, and the enlistment of African-American soldiers in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation rounded out the Union Army. The declining number of white volunteers and rising demands for personnel compelled the Lincoln administration to reverse its prior policy from barring African Americans from serving. Nevertheless, on February 1, 1864, Lincoln issued a draft call for an additional 500,000 troops, twice the number of soldiers on duty in all the Confederate armies. When the large number of Union soldiers who enlisted in 1861 had their terms up in 1864, the federal government tried to induce them to stay in the army. The government offered a special chevron to wear on their sleeve, a thirty-day furlough, a $400 bounty, and used all sorts of peer pressure to keep men in the army. Some were not convinced. One Massachusetts soldier said: “They use a man here just the same as they do a turkey at a shooting match, fire at it all day, an if they don’t kill it raffle it off in the evening; so with us, if they can’t kill you in three years they want you for three more—but I will stay.” In the end, about 136,000 vets who initially enlisted in 1861 chose to stay. To replace these soldiers, the Union Army used draftees, which were usually not the pick of the litter. One Pennsylvania officer wrote that the “gamblers, thieves, pickpockets and blacklegs” he had to replace volunteers would have disgraced the regiment beyond all recovery had they remained. “But thanks to a kind Providence,” he argued, “they kept deserting, a dozen at a time, until they were nearly all gone.” Although the routines of camp had not changed from 1861 to 1865, the look and attitude of the men who performed them had been profoundly altered.
In the end, the bonds of comradery that were forged on the training ground or around the campfire was more common among soldiers of the Civil War than the shared experience of battle. They might not survive, nor wish to remember, the fighting that took so many of their friends’ lives. But those hours spent together in the more mundane tasks of life—cooking, washing clothes, and talking about their friends and family—created a bond that many Civil War soldiers remembered far after the conflict had ended.
Florida in the Civil War: A Soldier in Camp was produced by Bill Dudley with special guests Dr. Sean Adams, Department of History, University of Florida, Tomas R. Fasulo, Historian and Olustee Reenactor, Dustin Worley, Olustee Reenactor, Scotty King, Olustee Reenactor, Gail Marsdent, Olustee Reenactor and Bobby Wyatt, Olustee Reenactor.